I am shouldering my way through this discombobulating book of essays by Joan Didion, Where I Was From, reading it with a dedication dedicated to trying to understand this discombobulated place I moved to, California (which is, incidentally, Where She Was From), when finally, in Part II, Chapter 2, it all clicks in: Lakewood. Lakewood, a planned city of 17,500 homes south of Orange County, surrounded by defense contractors on all sides, a town built around a mall, supported by income flowing from the military-industrial complex, a happy town which as the defense jobs shuttered in the early 90s found itself on the national media stage for the vagrancy and alleged rapes committed by a clique of its post-adolescent males, the Spurs.
And I think, this essay is so good.
This belongs on a syllabus.
I want to teach this.
I want to talk about this with students.
This is in fact the tacit dissonance at the center of every moment in Lakewood, which is why the average day there raises, for the visitor, so many and such vertiginous questions:
What does it cost to create and maintain an artificial ownership class?
What happens when that class stops being useful?
What does it mean to drop back below the line?
What does it cost to hang on above it, how do you behave, what do you say, what are the pitons you drive into the granite?
And I’m thinking of something I heard an educator say last week, his goal “that my students understand how they and their communities came to be as they are.” Because the history of the inner city is intricately connected to the history of the suburbs. Because this essay ends at Huntington Beach, site of a recent surf riot, subject of Cord Jefferson’s “White on White crime” piece at Gawker, impetus for plagiarism allegations against him on behalf of tweeter @thewayoftheid.
An altercation on the set of a talk show closes the piece.
One of the ugliets and most revelatory…moments that characterized the 1993 television appearances of Lakewood’s Spur Posse members occurred on Jane Whitney, when a nineteen-year-old Lakewood High School Graduate named Chris Albert (“Boasts He Has 44 ‘Points’ For Having Sex With Girls”) Turned mean with a member of the audience, a young black woman who had tried to suggest that the Spurs in her view were not exhibiting what she considered native intelligence.
“I don’t get–I don’t understand what she’s saying,” Chris Albert had at first said, letting his jaw go slack as these boys tended to do when confronted with an unwelcome, or in fact any, idea.
Another Spur had interpreted: “We’re dumb. She’s saying we’re dumb.”
“What education does she have?” Chris Albert had then demanded, and crouched forward toward the young [black] woman , as if trying to shake himself alert. “Where do you work at? McDonald’s? Burger King?” A third Spur had tried to interrupt, but Chris Albert, once roused, could not be deflected. “Five twenty-five?” he said. “Five fifty?” And then, there it was, the piton, driven in this case not into granite but into shale, already disintegrating. “I go to college.” Two years later Chris Albert would be dead, shot in the chest and killed during a Fourth of July celebration on the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach.